Thanks to our friends from Bethesda Magazine for featuring ArtStream in their annual Guide to Giving.
During the last session of a series of four comedy classes offered in July, 10 adults with cognitive disabilities were beaming as they stood in front of their family and friends at the Round House Theatre Education Center in Silver Spring. They each did a stand-up routine and together performed bits from I Love Lucy and The Simpsons and an original scene dreamed up by one student called “Unholy Bagels,” about a restaurant that serves bagels without holes.
The show was just one of ArtStream’s programs that aims to make the arts accessible for everyone—especially those with disabilities or facing challenging life circumstances, such as grief or illness. The Silver Spring-based organization was founded in 2005 by five women artists—Sally Kinka, Patricia Krauss, Emilia O’Connor, Nicolette Stearns and Patricia Woolsey—who met while working at Imagination Stage in Bethesda and discovered a common interest in spreading the arts to communities that don’t usually have access to them.
ArtStream now has seven inclusive theater companies that create original plays, as well as a large selection of classes in drama and social skills, housed in various community centers and theater spaces. Forty staff artists administer these programs, along with 200 volunteers. ArtStream also sponsors arts programs in health care settings, such as Allies in the Arts, which brings artists to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda for bedside art activities with patients. Last year, ArtStream had 3,700 participants in its programs.
Adults with disabilities particularly benefit from arts programming after they reach the point in their lives where there is a “services cliff,” says John Newman, ArtStream’s marketing manager. After they hit 21, adults with disabilities go from being in school with many programs to being adults with new expectations. “Everyone deserves to express themselves through art, and everyone can benefit from expressing themselves through art,” Newman says.
Natalie Zanin, a comedy class instructor, says she has seen how ArtStream programs have drastically improved people’s confidence and empowered them to get jobs or do volunteer work. One actor she met in her first year of directing would not look anyone in the eye when he began taking drama classes. A year later, his confidence had grown so much that he came decked out in a costume to audition as Richard III. The year after that, he played President Orama Barometer in the ensemble’s original play The Wizard of Ooohs and Aaahhs. Since then, the 23-year-old Silver Spring resident has started working at a record store, appeared in a TV commercial and begun volunteering at Holy Cross Hospital.